North Carolina to vaccinate those 65 and older; College students not prioritized

RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina public health officials on Thursday unveiled an updated coronavirus vaccine distribution plan that prioritizes adults 65 years or older, while removing college students as a priority over the general public.

The initial phases outlined by NCDHHS allowed people 75 and older to get vaccines when a county moved into Phase 1B.

The new, more simplified guidance from the state Department of Health and Human Services comes in response to growing concerns that its previous plan was too complicated, slowed down vaccine distribution and administration and didn’t give enough consideration to older adults who are far more likely to die from the virus than college students and other groups.

”Getting vaccines across North Carolina into arms is the number one priority right now,” Cooper said on a call with local leaders Thursday morning, according to WTVD.

He called on those leaders to encourage their local health departments to make sure they use up all of the COVID-19 vaccine doses they are given, and he hopes lowering the age limit for the early vaccines will help.

Because vaccine supplies are currently limited, states must make the vaccine available in phases.

>> READ NORTH CAROLINA’S FULL VACCINE PLAN HERE

DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen on Twitter posted a link to the updated distribution plan, which shows elderly residents who are at least 65 years old now able to get vaccinated. Previously, residents had to be at least 75 years old to be prioritized in the current group. The adjustment aligns with new guidance put forward by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“We are trying for simplicity and to really focus on the additional guidance we got from the federal government just a couple of days ago,” Cohen said in a Thursday news conference. “We are prioritizing those who are at highest risk of severe illness, those who are at highest risk from an exposure perspective and really try to get some simplicity there.”

“I was very surprised. I figured I would have to wait another month or two,” said Diana Lassahn, who was the first newly qualified senior to get the vaccine at Atrium.

With Thursday’s announcement, vaccine providers who are ready may vaccinate adults 65 years and older and healthcare workers, which will be followed by frontline essential workers, then adults with a high risk of exposure and increased risk of serious illness, then everyone, according to a release issued by the state.

“It is the responsibility of all vaccine providers to ensure equitable access to vaccines,” the release stated. “This will mean taking intentional actions to reach and engage historically marginalized communities.”

“Doctors, hospitals and local health departments are working hard to get people vaccinated. There may be a wait, but when it’s your spot, take your shot to stay healthy and help us get back to being with family and friends,” said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.

Cooper also said local leaders needed to speak up and ask the state if they need any help. He specifically mentioned help with added personnel and technology, saying the state is ready and willing to send resources where they are needed.

This change comes after North Carolina was identified as one of the worst states in the country for vaccination rate.

”The next few months are going to be tough,” Cooper said. “Regardless of how many people we vaccinate, we know that we will not be able to get the required immunity for several months. So our prevention efforts are more important than ever.”

Many health departments have said they don’t have the capacity to handle the demand right now.

On Thursday, Mecklenburg County’s health director said the county isn’t sure when it will be able to offer the vaccine to those 65-74 years old because it doesn’t have enough supply.

One of the challenges is health departments don’t know how many vaccine doses they will receive each week.

Atrium doctor Katie Passaretti said the hospital system does have enough vaccine for the new group, but the increase does present logistical challenges.

“With broadening those age ranges come increased volumes, increased demands, increased calls. And definitely, there are plenty of logistics to work through -- but on board with this absolutely being the right thing to do,” she said.

Logistics and volume are challenges health departments like Mecklenburg County are facing amid a surge of COVID-19 cases to test, track and manage -- and a vaccine rollout that requires a lot of manpower.

At Atrium, Passaretti said it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort. She’s one of several employees volunteering on the weekends to administer shots.

“It’s not usually in my day job to give vaccines. But in my free time, I’m going to do that,” Passaretti said.

>> Have questions about the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the Carolinas? We have an entire section dedicated to coverage of the outbreak -- CLICK HERE FOR MORE.

As part of the ongoing effort to educate North Carolinians about the safety, benefits and importance of receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, NCDHHS launched You have a spot. Take your shot. to provide all North Carolinians with information about COVID-19 vaccine development, testing, safety, side-effects and reactions.

A searchable list of health departments and hospitals administering the vaccination is available on the state’s COVID-19 vaccination website, here.

People who are currently eligible and would like to receive the vaccine must make an appointment with their local health department or hospital.

Asked if college students are no longer prioritized over the general public, she replied, “Yes, that’s right. We’ve simplified.”

North Carolina ranks as the 10th slowest state in the nation per capita in vaccine doses administered, according to data the public health department shared with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday.

North Carolina’s slow pace is not unusual, given many states have vaccinated around 2% to 3% of their populations. As distribution ramps up due to a shifting federal strategy of not holding back as many doses in reserve, vaccines will be more widely available in the coming months.

Once elderly residents have gotten vaccinated, frontline essential workers will be prioritized in the third phase of distribution. The fourth phase includes anyone 16-64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, all prison inmates or others living in close group living settings who are not already vaccinated and essential workers not yet vaccinated.

Based on CDC guidance, these workers include those in transportation and logistics, water and wastewater, food service, construction, finance, information technology and communications, energy, law, media, public safety and public health.

The fifth phase makes a vaccine available to anyone who wants it.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger has criticized Cohen and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper for giving preference to college students who are at far less risk of death than older adults. He welcomes the change in policy.

“There still may be an awful lot of young, healthy people who fall under the very broad range of ‘essential workers’ who might go before people in their 50s and 60s who face a much higher risk of death, but this is a big move in the right direction and I’m happy about it,” he said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The reassessment of vaccination recipients happened on the same day North Carolina’s new chief justice took actions designed to kickstart more local court activities.

Paul Newby let expire predecessor Cheri Beasley’s 30-day prohibition of most judicial proceedings and several other directives she had signed in mid-December to address the surge in cases.

New jury trials are allowed to begin under Newby’s changes, provided that jurors can be kept at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart. Senior trial court judges no longer need to submit plans to the chief justice about how their local courthouse will manage jury trials before resuming them.

Visitors and court officials still must wear face coverings in public areas of courthouses and other common areas.

Newby, previously an associate justice who defeated Beasley in the November election, had questioned her restrictions on certain courtroom practices during the pandemic.

Thursday’s order “allows local courthouse leadership, who assess the threat of COVID-19 every day, to tailor preventative measures to meet their specific local challenges,” Newby said in a statement.

Newby asked Cooper last week to give local court officials the ability to receive COVID-19 vaccinations sooner.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.